If you think about it, our attention is the only thing we truly own in our lives. Our possessions can go away. Our bodies can be compromised. Our relationships can fall apart. Even our memories and intellectual capacity fade away. But the simple ability to choose what to focus on — that will always be ours.
Unfortunately, with today’s technology, our attention is being pulled in more directions than ever before, which makes this optioning of our own attention more difficult — and more important — than ever before.
In his book Deep Work*, Cal Newport argues that the ability to focus deeply on a single project, idea or task for long periods of time is not only one of the most important skills for succeeding in the information age, but it’s also an ability that appears to be dwindling among the population.
But I would go even further and dare to say that our ability to focus and hone our attention on what we need is a core component of living a happy, healthy life.
We’ve all had those days or weeks (or months or years) where we’ve felt scatterbrained — out of control of our own reality, constantly sucked down rabbit holes of pointless information and DRAMA COMPRISED OF ENDLESS CLICKS and NOTIFICATIONS!!
To be happy and healthy, we need to feel as though we are in control of ourselves and we are utilizing our abilities and talents effectively. To do that, we must be in control of our attention.
And I think this is why seeing the cell phone at the dinner table pisses me off.
It’s quit hard for one to put together a “Why I got married” weekend. It requires me to focus and exert not only physical discipline but mental discipline as well. And to stop every 10 minutes because somebody needs to email their boss or text their boyfriend yanks me out of that. And worse, it yanks me out against my will.
It’s attention pollution when somebody else’s inability to focus or control themselves then interferes with the attention and focus of those around them.
And with the explosion in smart devices and internet available pretty much everywhere from Bundibugyo to your ‘toilet seat’, attention pollution is infiltrating our daily lives more and more without us realizing it.
It’s why we get annoyed at dinner when someone starts texting in front of us. It’s why we get pissed off when someone pulls their phone out in a movie theater. It’s why we become irritated when someone is checking their email instead of watching the football game. Their inability to focus interferes with our (already-fragile) ability to focus.
The same way second-hand smoke harms the lungs of people around the smoker, smartphones harm the attention and focus of people around the smartphone user. It hijacks our senses. It forces us to pause our conversations and redouble our thoughts unnecessarily.
It causes us to lose our train of thought and forget that important point we were constructing in our head. It erodes at our ability to connect and simply be present with one another, destroying intimacy in the process.
But the smoking comparison doesn’t end there. There’s evidence that suggests that we are doing long-term harm to our memories and attention spans.
The same way smoking cigarettes fucks over our long-term health in the name of a series of short-term bursts of highs, the dopamine kicks we get from our phones are harming our brain’s ability to function over the long-term, all in the name of getting a bunch of likes on that really cool new photo of our food we’re about to eat. Who gives a rat’s ass about what you’ll shit out in two hours?
Now, it may sound like I’m overreacting here. Like I had a shitty ‘Why did I get married” weekend and am taking it out on hundreds – pardon me – tens of readers on the internet.
But I’m serious. I think this is fucking us up more than we realize.
I’ve noticed that as the years go on, it’s becoming harder for me to sit down and think/write like this than it was three or four years ago. And it’s not just that the amount of available distractions have compounded over the years, it’s that my ability to resist those distractions seems to have worn down to the point where I often don’t feel in control of my own attention anymore.
And this kind of freaks me out.
It’s not that I resent that woman who can’t go 10 minutes without checking her messages. I resent that I am becoming that person at in the meeting who can’t go 10 minutes without checking his messages. And I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one.
I’ve met people the last few years who get incredibly anxious if they can’t check their phone in social situations. They carry their phones into conversations the way some people carry dogs on airplanes. It’s a constant outlet if the necessity to interface with another person’s thoughts and feelings ever becomes too intense.
I’ve started to notice people who feel like they need to always be checking email or their messages to feel as though they’re being a good, productive employee. Doesn’t matter if it’s their kid’s sports day, or in the car at the stop light, or in bed at midnight on a Saturday. They feel like they have to always be caught up on every piece of information that is flung their way, otherwise they’re somehow failing.
I’ve noticed friends who can no longer sit through entire movies (or even episodes of a TV show) without pulling out their phones multiple times in the middle of it. People who can’t make it through a meal without putting the phone next to their plate.
It’s happening everywhere, and it’s therefore becoming the social norm. The eroded attention is becoming the normal, socially acceptable attention, and we are all paying for it.
I have a dream, friends. I have a dream of a world where people can sit through long, dull conversations, without feeling the need to douse themselves with instant-gratification delivered through glowing plastic screens.